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How Christopher Nolan Uses Crosscutting to Build Momentum

One of Christopher Nolan’s trademark techniques is the crosscut. Here’s a look at why, via ‘The Dark Knight,’ ‘Inception,’ and ‘Interstellar.’
The Dark Knight Christopher Nolan Crosscut
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on September 21st, 2020

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video that explores a staple of director Christopher Nolan: the crosscut.

Christopher Nolan wants to have it all. And by “all” I mean crosscut plot threads. One urgent, nail-biting sequence just isn’t enough. The man loves to splice together multiple heart-pounding story beats. Maybe one day he’ll make a whole movie that’s just one big crosscut. Oh, wait, Dunkirk exists. Ah, Nolan, you’ve thought of everything.

It’s not surprising that a director who thinks of storytelling as a puzzle would favor the crosscut. The technique allows parallel storylines to intermingle, and if assembled correctly, the magic trick can yield uniquely cinematic moments of multi-level suspense.

A great example, as cited in the video essay below, is from The Dark Knight. In this fantastic Nolan crosscut, the now villainous Harvey Dent torments Commissioner Gordon’s children, while a boat full of passengers must choose to blow up another ship in order to survive, while Batman chases after the Joker, who’s going to blow up both boats regardless of what the passengers choose.

At their best, crosscuts can generate the kind of thrilling momentum that has come to characterize much of Nolan’s filmography: a thrilling compound of stakes and urgency, as well as a mastery of juggling disparate plots without losing the thread.

And while Nolan has produced some damn fine crosscuts, there’s an example from the second act of Interstellar that just doesn’t quite come together. Luckily, because Nolan is, if nothing else, a consistent man, he’s made enough crosscuts that we can look to his previous work to suss out where Interstellar went wrong.

Watch “Christopher Nolan vs. Interstellar — The Nolan Crosscut“:

Who made this?

This breakdown comes courtesy of Lessons From The Screenplay, which is a consistently insightful video essay channel created and run by Michael Tucker. Lessons From The Screenplay focuses on analyzing movie scripts to determine exactly how films tell effective stories. You can check out Lessons From The Screenplay’s YouTube channel here. And you can follow Tucker on Twitter here.

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Meg has been writing professionally about all things film-related since 2016. She is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects as well as a Curator for One Perfect Shot. She has attended international film festivals such as TIFF, Hot Docs, and the Nitrate Picture Show as a member of the press. In her day job as an archivist and records manager, she regularly works with physical media and is committed to ensuring ongoing physical media accessibility in the digital age. You can find more of Meg's work at Cinema Scope, Dead Central, and Nonfics. She has also appeared on a number of film-related podcasts, including All the President's Minutes, Zodiac: Chronicle, Cannes I Kick It?, and Junk Filter. Her work has been shared on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, Business Insider, and CherryPicks. Meg has a B.A. from the University of King's College and a Master of Information degree from the University of Toronto.